For the first time in the history of Malaysia’s judiciary, a female Chief Justice was appointed – making her the top judge in the country. Datuk Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat is the 16th Chief Justice of Malaysia, after the retirement of our former Chief Justice, Tan Sri Richard Malanjum.
Based on an official statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, the swearing in ceremony and handing over the letter of appointment before the Agong will be notified after receiving the Agong’s consent. But before we go into the details about our new CJ, let’s briefly understand what a Chief Justice does and why this role is important for the country.
Who is a chief justice?
So, a Chief Justice is the head of the Malaysian judiciary system and is nominated by the Prime Minister of the country. The appointment is then further instated by the Yang-Di Pertuan Agong (the King).
The role of a Chief Justice (CJ) is defined by the Federal Constitution, under Article 122(1):
As we explained earlier, the Chief Justice (CJ for short) is the head of the Judiciary. The roles and functions of a CJ differ from an Attorney General (AG) mainly in that they work in different branches of the government.
In other words, the Chief Justice is the head of all courts and has seniority over all the judges. The CJ is also in-charge of liaising between the Judiciary and the Government in matters involving policies and practices.
I guess you can say she’s basically the judge of all judges in Malaysia. With that, now let’s look at five interesting facts about Tengku Maimun…
1. She started off as a judicial commissioner
Tengku Maimun graduated from the University of Malaya in 1982 and was first appointed as a judicial commissioner in 2007. She then rose up the ranks to become one of the justices in the Federal Court last November. So, what exactly did she have to go through in order to be appointed as a CJ?
There are actually 3 requirements to become the Chief Justice in Malaysia:
- Firstly, you must be a Malaysian Citizen.
- You must have been a lawyer handling cases in higher courts OR become a member of the judicial service for at least 10 years.
- You must be appointed by the Agong (on advice of the Prime Minister, after consulting the Conference of Rulers)
Since Malaysia got it’s independence in 1963, fifteen judges had held the top judicial post in Malaysia, and this is the first time in all these years where a woman has been appointed as a CJ. But there was more than just these requirements that she fulfilled to be appointed as the CJ. Since January 2013, Tengku Maimun has sat as one of the judges in multiple high-profile cases in the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court.
One of the reasons why she’s prominent is because...
2. She’s well known for her sound decisions and independence in the judiciary
The former Malaysian Bar president George Varughese stated:
“Her Ladyship is known for her sound decisions, impeccable judicial temperament and most of all her independence. Her Ladyship’s appointment augurs well especially for the reform of the judiciary.” – This Week in Asia
So, besides fulfilling the 3 requirements which made her the first female Chief Justice in Malaysia, there are several notable judgements made by Tengku Maimun which became landmark decisions in Malaysia’s judiciary. One of it is…
3. The Sedition Act case involving the late Karpal Singh
Karpal Singh also known as the Tiger of Jelutong, was a renowned Criminal lawyer in Malaysia, who was charged under the Sedition Act 1948 over a press statement issue and was recently acquitted from the charges in March 2019.
Our Chief Justice, Tengku Maimun was the only judge who gave a dissenting judgement (a differing judgement from the other judges) where she upheld and favoured to set aside Karpal Singh’s charges, and stated:
"The High Court has failed to look at the appellant's defence independently," Tengku Maimun stated, adding that Karpal's statements were merely his legal opinion of public interest. – The Star.com.my
This is just one of the times our female CJ had stood firm on her decision and gave an independent stand. Another notable case heard by Tengku Maimun is...
4. On the unilateral conversion of children in Malaysia
This is a case of a unilateral conversion which was appealed by a Buddhist man, whose two children were converted to Islam by their Muslim mother. The mother of the children converted herself to Islam first, and later obtained custody of the children where she subsequently converted them without the permission from their father.
So when the father appealed to the Court of Appeal, CJ Tengku Maimun granted the father to reverse the High Court ruling, which had previously given custody to his ex-wife. The court had also given the father sole guardianship of his children and declared that the certificates of the conversions were null and void. Just to side track a little on this, and explain the legal reasoning behind Tengku Maimun’s judgement, it is now in the Malaysian law that both parents must give their consent when converting their children to Islam.
For some reason, most of her prominent judgements involved cases related to child laws/child custody. In 2015...
5. She decided that illegitimate children can still carry their father’s name
Here, Tengku Maimun was one of the judges who stood by the landmark decision for cases of Muslim children who are conceived out of wedlock and decided that they should be allowed to carry his/her father’s surname. The court in that decision further stated that the National Registration Department (NRD) is not bound by the fatwa or religious orders issued by the National Fatwa Committee when it comes to deciding on the surname of the child that is conceived out of wedlock.
This is because the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration and the court felt that the child did not deserve to carry the stigma of being known as an illegitimate child in the community.
From legal officer to Chief Justice
With that, Tengku Maimun has indeed lived up to her sound and firm decisions, which is particularly seen in cases involving children. She started off as a legal officer in the Southern Kelantan Development Board (Kesedar) in 1982 and 37 years into her career, she is now the first female CJ of Malaysia.
So, it looks like we will be hearing more from her in other high profile cases once she’s officially sworn in as the 16th Chief Justice, after receiving the royal assent from the King.